Verhofstadt gets a little help from his friends in drive towards integration

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Series Details Vol.7, No.26, 28.6.01, p14
Publication Date 28/06/2001
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Date: 28/06/01

By David Cronin

BELGIAN presidencies are known for their grandiose gestures. The last time Brussels took the EU reins in 1993, it lived up to then-Prime Minister Jean-Luc Dehaene's promise that it would be "no small beer". Out went the cumbersome European Economic Community (EEC) during that period, when it was officially renamed the far-snappier European Union.

Dehaene was lampooned by some commentators, who felt he was a puppet of Helmut Kohl. Since then the former German chancellor's pivotal role in shaping the EU's development has been overshadowed by a raft of kickback allegations; yet the experience of his Belgian protégé is highly valued.

So much so that Dehaene's successor, Guy Verhofstadt, has selected him as part of the five-strong 'Laeken group' to advise him on how to achieve major results from the next six months. The other members of this formidable team are ex-Commission President Jacques Delors, ex-Italian premier Giuliano Amato, ex-Polish foreign minister Bronislaw Geremek and British MP David Miliband, former head of Tony Blair's policy unit.

The five's primary focus will be December's gathering of EU leaders at Laeken, the royal compound just outside Brussels. Belgium hopes that this summit will result in a clear declaration setting out the division of powers between national governments and EU institutions in an enlarged Union, an issue which the Nice Treaty only skirts.

The statement is supposed to form a key part of preparations for another treaty-revising Intergovernmental Conference (IGC) in 2004, by which time several new countries may - or may not - have been admitted into the Union.

The purpose of Laeken, Verhofstadt has said, will "not be to slow down the pace of integration, but on the contrary, to allow it to move into a higher gear".

Traditionally one of the most federalist-minded of the 15 member states, Belgium has often pushed issues that are unpalatable for Eurosceptics. Verhofstadt, for example, was the first EU leader to propose that a

Union-wide tax should be levied to raise revenues for its €99-billion annual budget. It comes as no surprise, then, that Belgian officials are discussing proposals that would probably make

EU-critics break out in a nasty rash. One fonctionnaire in its foreign ministry said he could envisage the presidency providing the groundwork for an embryonic Union constitution.

To prove it is forward-thinking, the government last week signed up to a blueprint with the Netherlands and Luxembourg for establishing a Benelux forum on the 'Future of Europe'. Operating next year and 2003, it will invite representatives of the European Parliament, Commission and Council of Ministers to outline all their ideas on a grand process of "constitutionalisation".

Verhofstadt also appears to have a deep philosophical commitment to the EU's eastward expansion. Addressing his country's branch of the 'European movement' recently, he spoke about this topic in dewy-eyed terms: "When looked at from a historical point of view, enlargement is something that touches the very soul of the European Union. Enlargement makes it possible to revive Europe's geographical, political and cultural identity."

Over the past few years, though, the enlargement issue has moved away from the realm of lofty ideals to the nitty-gritty details of ensuring the applicant states place EU legislation on their statute books.

The conclusions reached at the Göteborg summit earlier this month declared enlargement "irreversible" but fudged the issue of when it will actually happen. It remains to be seen if the Belgian presidency can make EU leaders agree to something less evasive.

Perhaps the least enviable task which the presidency faces is rescuing the Nice Treaty after the body-blow dealt to it by Ireland's No vote in the recent referendum. Although the treaty's redrafting has been ruled out, there will be probably be a question mark hovering over its future for at least the next year as Dublin ponders when it will call another poll - one that it could also lose.

Verhofstadt must be relieved that Belgium does not have anything like Ireland's constitutional quirk, obliging it to consult its electorate before major changes to the EU's most fundamental legal texts can be endorsed.

If it did, then his government would have had to convince a sceptical public that approving a compromise, which would for the first time have given Belgium fewer votes than its historical foe the Netherlands in the EU's Council of

Ministers, was a good idea. Indeed, an opinion poll for Belgian current affairs magazine Le Vif/L'Express indicates that the government is out of sync with ordinary voters. Of those surveyed, 55% said they were opposed to enlargement.

Unless he undergoes a sudden change of heart, Verhofstadt is unlikely to reflect their views. Dehaene remarked in 1993 that he wished to put Europe on the rails. He reached that goal, albeit with more than a little help from his friends in Bonn.

Verhofstadt's job will be to try and draw up a timetable to ensure that the journey towards enlargement doesn't get delayed.

Article forms part of a survey on the Belgian EU Presidency, July-December 2001.

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